A light train falls as Department of Conservation (DoC) technical-support officer Richard Nester and I reach Siberia, on the Rimutaka Rail Trail between Upper Hutt and Featherston. The pick-and-shovel workers who built this line in the 1870s used to call the spot Horseshoe Gully, probably because of the 144 degrees the track here swung through over the course of 100 m. But the ferocious winds that can tear through the area soon prompted use of the ultimate chill-associated name.
The only fatal train accident during the Rimutaka Incline’s 77-year history (1878–1955) occurred at this location. Three children lost their lives, and a fourth died later of injuries, when a gust of wind blew two railcars off the track on September 11, 1880. Siberia is also the one section of the rail trail that has unquestionably been reclaimed by nature. A massive wash-out in 1967 obliterated the high, curving embankment that the trains once chugged across. Now mountain-bikers and hikers cautiously pick their way across an ever-shifting gully before regaining the line of the track.
In the New Zealand Geographic Place Names Database (at www.linz. govt.nz), there are 16 places around the country with the word Siberia in their names—and this harsh spot on the Rimutaka Incline isn’t one of them. Otago, on the other hand, lays claim to six. From Siberia Stream in South Auckland to Siberia Hut in the Leatham Conservation Area, in Marlborough, and on to Siberia Saddle in Westland and Siberia Ford in Canterbury, New Zealand maps are peppered with a word that is most probably bastardised Mongolian for “the calm land”.
Of course, a calm land wasn’t usually what bestowers of the epithet usually had in mind. In the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary, Siberia is described as “A. a vast region in Russia . . . an extremely cold, inhospitable, or remote place. B. a place of exile or imprisonment.” For those of us who were alive during the Cold War, the name evokes both things simultaneously. Celebrated novelists such as Solzhenitsyn and, more than a century earlier, Dostoevsky detailed the cruel realities of the Siberian penal colonies. Their writings helped define how the rest of the world viewed the place.
Miners appear to have been responsible for naming many New Zealand Siberias. In at least some of the spots concerned, the name might have been coined as both a physical description and a verbal talisman. As Michael King states in The Penguin History of New Zealand regarding the discovery of gold in the 1860s: “Every province in the country was keen to find ample deposits of ‘payable’ gold within its own boundaries after hearing of the effects of such bonanzas in Siberia, California and Victoria, Australia, in the 1850s.”
Officially, gold was first discovered in New Zealand in the Coromandel. Fittingly, the name Siberia cropped up not long after, at the site of the first quartz-crushing battery for New Zealand Crown Mines in Waitawheta Gorge, Karangahake. No doubt there was a reason they chose Siberia over California.
On the West Coast of the South Island, the most remote outpost of the Rewanui coal-mining settlement had the distinction of being called Siberia. In the early days the Rewanui mines, the harsh, isolated existence of the miners and their families led miner turned Labour leader and MP Harry Holland to pen Rewanui: A Sonnet. In his poem, Holland describes Rewanui as a “Vale of Ill”.
By the time Labour came to power in 1935, Holland had died, but Paddy Webb MP, the incoming Minister of Mines and another ex-miner, argued that living at Rewanui was an unreasonable burden for workers and their families to endure. Shortly afterwards, most Rewanui residents were relocated to Runanga.
Reading Les Wright’s engaging history of Rewanui, Siberia to the Sea: Memories of Rewanui Settlement, the Liverpool Coal Mines and the Rewanui Incline, one senses that in ridding the mining industry of many of the undesirable practices of the day, reformers ensured a bit of good was lost along with the bad. For some, the hardships they faced, far from being intolerable, seemed to provide true solace, even though, as Wright states, “To the average New Zealander, a place like Rewanui rated somewhere between a penal colony and the end of the earth.” Since the miners liked to live as close as possible to the mine section they worked, those on Rewanui’s Siberia section faced an additional exile, for Siberia was tucked up high in the shadows of the Paparoa Range.
In a quite different vein, S.R. White, in the New Zealand Journal of Geology & Geophysics (2002, vol. 45, pp. 271–287), defines for the first time the Siberian Fault Zone (SFZ), a 40 km northern extension of the Moonlight Tectonic Zone. The fault is traceable from the head of the Wilkin River towards Haast Pass, in the south-west of the South Island. Earlier studies recognise the fault but consider it part of the Moonlight Fault. White’s observations suggest the two are distinct.
His suggested name comes from Siberia Stream, which lies about midway along the fault, and Siberia Valley, in which the stream flows. Arguably the most well-known Siberia in New Zealand, Siberia Valley is flanked by Mount Dreadful and Mount Awful, in Mount Aspiring National Park. Local legend has it that valley and mountains were named by an early explorer who had difficulty getting out of the area and was in no mood to appreciate the stunning scenery. There’s a popular tramp through the valley, and Southern Alps Air offers the “Siberia Experience”, which involves being flown into the valley and dropped off to hike through the beech forests, then rendezvousing with a jet-boat on the Wilkin.
In February 2005, I had the rare pleasure of sitting in a room full of railway enthusiasts and experts to learn about the Fell-locomotive railway system that used to operate over the Rimutakas. At one point, discussion turned to the naming of Siberia, on the Incline. Retired engineering expert Ron Grant smiled and said, “Every government department has their Siberia.” There was a pause in the conversation as everyone in the room nodded in quiet assent. Ron went on to say that, in his day, those engaged in public-works projects on the West Coast often felt as if they were working in Siberia. He chuckled, but I heard pride behind the statement. The scope of the projects, the physical hardship and the isolation—these were challenges he had surmounted.
After that occasion, I started to notice that Siberia was a ubiquitous part of the New Zealand lexicon.
At least two MPs in recent months have been referred to in the news as having been “sent to Siberia” following falls from political grace. The premise of the television comedy Serial Killers, which was cancelled in 2004, was the banishment of fictional soap-opera writers to a shed called Siberia. And, in Lynley Hood’s biography Sylvia!, writer and educator Sylvia Ashton-Warner is several times quoted as describing periods of her life in her home country as “solitary confinement in Siberia”. The Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English notes that several of the bleaker corners of Parliament’s buildings (usually areas to which opposition backbenchers were consigned) have been referred to as Siberia over the years.
Of course, not all the public service Siberias were named Siberia. Journalist Tom O’Connor, now living in Timaru, recalls that when his father, who worked for the old New Zealand Post Office in Aria in the King Country—not exactly the centre of the universe itself—got offside with his boss, he was banished to Piopio, and how another post-office employee who fell into disfavour was transferred from Foxton to Haast. O’Connor thinks that for those who used to man lighthouses, Stephens Island, in Cook Strait, was a Siberia.
But the original Siberia is not just a bleak place of exile. As birders know, it is at the far end of the flight path followed by myriad arctic waders that migrate to and from Australia and New Zealand every year. Curlews, sandpipers, turnstones, knots and many other species navigate this 25,000 km East Asia–Australasia flyway with unerring accuracy. Unfortunately, the wetlands that the birds depend upon for feeding en route are becoming every bit as scarce as the gold fields of old at either end. On this side of the world, however, it is still possible to marvel at the thousands upon thousands of waders as they arrive in spring and depart each autumn. Not only does their miraculous achievement excite something of the hard-tack hope that the word Siberia evokes, it also represents a bridge to a country that seems a world away.
Back on the Rimutaka Rail Trail, Richard and I measure the Siberia Tunnel for a DOC interpretation project. Torch on, boots wet, hands cold, I try to imagine what it was like to work the line, to travel through Siberia every day. My simulacrum version is based on books and stories, the tales men and women tell when worry and exhaustion have worn away and only wisdom remains. Still, I ponder the stories told in the privately produced Memories of Cross Creek, compiled by Phil Clent, and for a moment I catch a glimpse of life lived on society’s edge. As Graham Murrell, a Fell-engine fitter on the Incline for over seven years, recalls of his first and only Fell-engine cab trip through Siberia Tunnel: “I could barely breathe, my ears felt as if they were on fire and my fingernails felt as if they were being burnt with a hot poker . . . When we were finally through and in the cool night air our bodies felt as if they would burst and we broke out in a ball of perspiration. My clothes were wet through.”
Bounded by the Ural Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, the great Siberia to the north is a land of extremes. All but its south-western corner lies in Russia, accounting for over half of that country’s territory. Nomadic groups laid claim to different parts until the Mongols conquered it in the 13th century. Starting in the 16th century, Russian traders began to move in, followed by Cossacks and eventually the Russian imperial army. Still, until the Trans-Siberian railway was built between 1891 and 1905, Siberia remained largely unexplored and sparsely inhabited.
As the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science notes: “development of Siberia, since its joining Russia in late XVI century has always been associated with exploitation of its natural resources: first fur, then lands, noble metals, now mostly raw materials and power resources”. The ecological price for all this resource extraction has been high. Many of Russia’s most heavily polluted cities lie in Siberia, even though less than 15 per cent of the country’s population resides there.
Nevertheless, large tracts of Siberia remain wild and relatively unspoilt. Three great rivers, the Ob, the Yenisei and the Lena, flow across it, and, in Lake Baikal, which contains 20 per cent of the planet’s fresh water, it boasts the world’s cleanest and deepest lake. A major part of its vastness is the West Siberian Plain, 2.7 million km2 in area, and it is home to about half of the world’s boreal forests. The Kamchatka peninsula, meanwhile, comparable in size to Japan, is home to the densest grizzly-bear population in the world.
For all the readiness with which New Zealanders have seized upon the name, the place itself lies beyond most people’s imaginative grasp.